Examining female characters in fiction, one can hardly escape noticing a particular pattern in many of them. Ranging from figures such as Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore in A Passage to India, Jane Eyre in the novel that bears her name, Cathy in Wuthering Heights, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Ophelia in Hamlet, Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings, Great Expectations’ Miss Havisham, through to Ripley in Alien, and even the Black Widow in the Marvel blockbuster movie Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we find that females are very often portrayed as a kind of walking shadow or phantom or a personified emptiness. Sometimes they are salvaged from that fate - often through marriage - but it is remarkable how few are.
Built with the raw material of emptinesses, female characters are rarely given lasting positive qualities. (You can read more about the whys and wherefores of this in How Stories Really Work.) Female companions in Doctor Who do not escape this phenomenon.
Even Sarah Jane Smith.
From the moment Elisabeth Sladen’s Sarah Jane makes her appearance in ‘The Time Warrior’, she is energetic and quite different to the somewhat naive Jo Grant, her predecessor as portrayed by Katy Manning. In her first adventure she sets about kidnapping the Doctor and is quick-minded and assertive, bringing Women’s Liberation into the Middle Ages (as later she would open the Queen of Peladon’s eyes to the concept of feminism). She is introduced not as the Doctor’s ‘assistant’, but as an independent journalist, something she would remain for the rest of her Doctor Who career and beyond, into her own series The Sarah Jane Adventures. Her approach suggested a self-reliance that female Doctor Who companions rarely possessed; she was driven by her own innate curiosity and spirit, not was not merely a ‘hanger-on’ or someone to scream at monsters.
With Tom Baker’s somewhat rebellious Doctor, though, Sarah Jane was really allowed to develop, becoming funnier and even mischievous. As things went on, she was brave enough to attack monsters like the Krynoid with an axe, or shoot a rifle in ‘The Pyramids of Mars’. But Season 13 of the show started a trend: she was hypnotised, possessed, blinded and moved evermore towards the helpless screaming companion of yesteryear. By the time her television adventures with the Doctor came to an end, she had been hypnotised and possessed more than any other companion in the programme’s history.
Probably she reaches her nadir, and most closely approaches the ‘phantom’ template, in ‘The Brain of Morbius’. Here, blinded, alone, desperate, she stumbles around a mad scientist’s laboratory pursued by a hideous monster. Only the sudden return of her sight rescues her. This is a long way from the feisty journalist who challenges everything she sees.
Tom and Elisabeth crafted their final scene together themselves. There was no suggestion of romance between them, as there was to be between the Doctor and companions in the modern show. These were just two good friends, who had experienced much together, saying goodbye to each other. Sarah Jane’s plucky whistling as she walked off, and her comic realisation that the Doctor had deposited her by mistake far from her home, salvaged her from the fate of many other female companions, but the fact that she as an exception to the rule serves to highlight the rule in many ways.
It’s a testimony to her defiance of the template that Sarah Jane then goes on to appear as a guest in several other Doctor Who adventures before, uniquely, earning her own series.